A federal judge in New Orleans has ruled that it is unconstitutional to put people in jail who are not able to repay court-ordered fines and fees without first assessing the financial condition of those individuals.
The judge accused the defendant in the case, judges within the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, of deliberately ignoring the financial condition of individuals before determining whether to imprison a criminal defendant who is unable to repay his or her court debt.
“The undisputed evidence in this case establishes that the Judges have a policy or practice of not inquiring into criminal defendants’ ability to pay before those individuals are imprisoned for nonpayment of court debts,” wrote Judge Sarah Vance.
Calling it a modern day “debtor’s prison,” plaintiffs in the case expected the ruling to ripple across the state of Louisiana. A number of similar lawsuits have been filed across the country.
Individuals face fees related to drug testing and drug treatment, as well as fees related to court costs, such as $14 for a four transcript, $500 for individuals convicted of a misdemeanor, and $2,500 for those convicted of a felony. The fees — about $1 million per year in Orleans County — are put into a pool and used by the parish to supplement salaries and benefits. Judges are also allowed to access the fund to cover benefits for themselves and their spouses, according to a report.
Judge Vance also ruled it was unconstitutional for judges to order the repayment of money that they themselves will spend.